Mexican Radio

One of my favorite parts about learning Spanish so far has been discovering a world of new music. Thanks to José (one of the employees at the box factory), I’ve been exploring the various Mexican music stations in Portland. (I say Mexican because that’s the audience the stations cater to and the source of most of their music. But Shakira, of course, is not from Mexico.)

In fact, I love one of these stations: 93.5 “éxitos“. (Éxitos means “successes” or, in English, “hits”.) Even if I weren’t trying to learn Spanish, I might listen to this music.

But since I am trying to learn Spanish, this station is even better. I don’t understand everything — not even close — but my comprehension is improving. I could catch maybe 5% of the songs and chatter when I started in June, but now it’s up to 25% (and I certainly get the gist of nearly every song).

My favorite songs are often those in which the singers enunciate. The more I’m able to understand, the better I like the song. For instance, here’s “Te Amo” from Makano.

Some songs, though, are beautiful even when I can’t understand them. “Insensible a Tí” by Alicia Villareal was tough to parse at first (though I know the lyrics now because Aly and I went through them), but I was still moved by it.

I’ve been playing this song over and over and over (una y otra vez) since I first heard it last week.

You may be wondering how I know the names of these songs and artists if I can’t understand everything that’s said. That’s where Shazam comes in. Shazam is an iPhone app that, after listening to a few seconds of a song, can usually identify it for you. (Not always, though.) And after it does, it lets you see lyrics, buy it from iTunes, or add it to a Spotify playlist. In short, it’s like magic.

I look forward to discovering more new Spanish-language music in the future. (And to having Aly help me translate it during our classes. That’s half the fun!)

Bonus! I just discovered that Spotify allows users to share playlists, so here’s a short Spanish playlist. I have a more robust playlist in iTunes at home, but this is a good sampling of the stuff I’m listening to right now.

The Art of Omar Rayyan

Though I put my dreams of traveling to England on hold this summer in order to help take care of Mom, I did find some time to sneak away for a long weekend in Indianapolis recently. Indianapolis isn’t quite the same as London, but I still had fun. I met up with my friends Adam and Courtney, and we spent four entire days at GenCon, one of the world’s largest gatherings of nerds.

Note: For more about my trip to Indianapolis, check out the write-up of GenCon Indy 2011 at Far Away Places, my new travel blog. (My new travel blog that isn’t quite ready for prime time.)

While at GenCon, I browsed through artists’ row, a collection of a couple dozen fantasy artists. Most were okay, but nothing caught my fancy. Not until I stumbled on the work of Omar Rayyan, that is. I stopped at his table only briefly, but those moments were magical. To Rayyan, I was probably just another guy to whom he gave a business card. But to me, I found a new favorite artist.

Rayyan paints watercolors of fantasy subjects. Some are rather grotesque, but many of his works would be perfect illustrations for fairy tales. (In fact, some are illustrations for fair tales.) When I got home and had time to look through his portfolio, I found several prints I wanted to own.

Look at these gems:

The Birdbath by Omar Rayyan
The Birdbath by Omar Rayyan

The Cavalier by Omar Rayyan
The Cavalier by Omar Rayyan

The Starting Line by Omar Rayyan
The Starting Line by Omar Rayyan

The Tea Party by Omar Rayyan
The Tea Party by Omar Rayyan

Note: All artwork reprinted here by permission. You can buy prints of Rayyan’s work from his Etsy shop.

When I showed these images to my cousin Nick last week, he was impressed. “They look like they’re from the Brown Fairy Book,” he said.

“What’s that?” I asked. He googled it for me. Then we looked more at Rayyan’s site. “Look!” I said. “Some of these are from the Brown Fairy Book.”

Finding Rayyan’s work was only one part of a long weekend that made me realize how much I love anthropomorphic animals. A lot. In fact, you’ll be hearing more about this in coming weeks. I’ll bet you can’t wait to read my review of Mouse Gaurd! (Short version: It’s awesome.)

Starstruck: Six Stunning Videos of the Night-Time Sky

Earlier tonight at Awesome People, I shared the six videos that make up The Sagan Series, one man’s attempt to create the PR campaign that NASA should have produced for itself. These videos make me ache to see humans in space.

As a boy, I dreamed of living in space, of journeying to other planets — and other stars. The best I’ll ever do, of course, is to go outside and look at the night sky. Unfortunately, that night sky isn’t so stellar here in Portland. There’s far too much light pollution. Maybe when I’m hiking across northern England next month, I’ll be able to take in some star-gazing.

To mollify myself in the meantime, I’ve been watching some brilliant time-lapse videos of the night sky, including the six featured below. First up is footage from Randy Halverson, who spent three weeks filming in Milky Way from his home in South Dakota.

Halverson’s other work is great, too, especially his winter night timelapse (including raccoons and an owl). Learn more at Dakotalapse.

Not to be outdone, here’s Alex Cherney’s gorgeous time-lapse video of the sky over the Southern Ocean Coast in Australia. This took Cherney 1-1/2 years of work and includes 31 hours of images made over six nights.

For more of Cherney’s work, take a look at Melbourne at Night. Learn more at his website, Terrastro.

And here’s a time-lapse video from Norway’s Terje Sørgjerd. His film stars El Teide, Spain’s highest mountain, and a dust storm from the Sahara Desert.

Sørgjerd’s images are stunning. Take a look at this celebration of the arctic light.

From Daniel López, here’s “El cielo de Canarias” (Canary sky):

And here’s Simon Christen’s time-lapse footage of the sky over San Francisco:

That last one lasts only a minute, but I wish it were longer.

Finally, here’s an eight-minute video of time-lapse footage from the Europoean Southern Observatory’s Very-Large Telescope in Chile:

If I can’t see the stars in person, at least I can watch them from the surface of the earth.

Bonus! Here’s an interactive sky map containing billions and billions of stars. Also, the European Southern Observatory’s top 100 space images

Does It ALWAYS Rain in Portland on the Fourth of July?

It seems that over the past few years, it’s become fashionable for Portlanders to complain that it always rains on the fourth of July. In fact, this whining has become something of an epidemic. Nobody wants to make plans outside for Independence Day because of the possibility of rain.

But is it true? Does it really always rain in Portland on the fourth of July? I’m a life-long resident of the area, and I have to say: My memory tells me that Independence Day is usually hot and sunny.

Because I’m tired of arguing about the weather, I dug into the data from the National Weather Service to prove my case. I looked at temperature records and precipitation records.

Here’s climate data for July 4th going back 25 years. What conclusions can you draw from this?

1969: 73/54 (.02)
1970: 88/60 (---)
1971: 70/54 (---)
1972: 97/57 (---)
1973: 81/59 (---)
1974: 76/57 (.06)
1975: 92/53 (---)
1976: 76/59 (.03)
1977: 63/48 (.01)
1978: 65/55 (---)
1979: 75/61 (---)
1980: 66/56 (.05)
1981: 88/61 (---)
1982: 69/54 (.02)
1983: 82/50 (---)
1984: 86/60 (---)
1985: 87/63 (---)
1986: 69/52 (.16)
1987: 69/57 (.02)
1988: 69/51 (---)
1989: 74/52 (---)
1990: 83/59 (.07)
1991: 80/55 (---)
1992: 68/60 (.16)
1993: 73/55 (---)
1994: 67/51 (-T-)
1995: 82/61 (---)
1996: 72/54 (---)
1997: 94/61 (---)
1998: 66/57 (.21)
1999: 67/53 (.14)
2000: 65/54 (-T-)
2001: 84/56 (---)
2002: 70/56 (---)
2003: 80/54 (---)
2004: 77/55 (---)
2005: 84/57 (---)
2006: 77/57 (---)
2007: 90/60 (---)
2008: 72/61 (.01)
2009: 92/59 (---)
2010: 67/53 (---)

As you can see, it doesn’t always rain on Independence Day. In fact, over the past 42 years, it’s only rained fifteen times — and only four times with real conviction. What’s more, over the past twelve years (including today), Portland has only received one one-hundredth of an inch of rain on July 4th.

I’ll admit, however, that I’m wrong when I say the fourth is always hot and sunny. It’s not. There are indeed cool days now and then. But the mean high temperature in Portland on July 4th is 77 degrees Fahrenheit and the mean low is 56. The mean rainfall is two one-hundredths of an inch (though the mode is zero rainfall).

So, there you go: It doesn’t always rain in Portland on the fourth of July. In fact, rain is uncommon, and real rain is rare. The next time somebody complains about rain on Independence Day, you can point them to this page! Somehow, though, I don’t think it’ll change their mind.

Aprendo Español

Though things have been quiet around Foldedspace, they haven’t been quiet in Real Life. As always, I spend most of my time writing about money. I’m also exercising 2-1/2 hours a day, five days a week. I’m absorbing enormous (digital) piles of information about money and writing and travel. I’m meeting friends and colleagues for lunch and dinner. I’m doing my best to not let the yard turn completely feral. Kris and I are hanging out with friends. And, yes, I’m learning Spanish.

For years now, I’ve said that I want to learn Spanish “some day”. But that day never seemed to come. I’ve always found reasons to put it off.

Part of the problem is that learning a new language is slow going. Plus, it’s scary. I feel embarrassed stumbling my way through verb conjugations and incorrect nouns. I hate when the words don’t spring immediately to mind. Besides, there’s a huge time commitment if you ever really want to become proficient.

Background: I studied German for two years in high school. During my first semester in college, I studied Spanish, but then (for reasons I forget) I went back for three more semesters of German. Since then, I’ve tried to teach myself Latin (hey, I should try that again!), and have dabbled in French and Italian. In other words: I’m fluent in English and know a smattering of words in other languages.

Earlier this month, I met Benny Lewis, the Irish polyglot who writes about language learning at Fluent in 3 Months. I told Benny I wanted to learn Spanish and asked if he had any suggestions.

“The best thing you can do — if you can afford it — is to hire a private tutor,” he told me. “Meet with the tutor as often as you can.” (Later, Benny spent an hour with me on Skype. We talked about his current trip to Turkey, and he gave me travel tips, especially for Latin America. Benny rocks!)

Well, I can afford to hire a private language tutor, and so that’s what I’ve done. For the past two weeks, I’ve been meeting with a Peruvian woman named Aly. We spend 4-1/2 hours a week together, and she assigns stacks of Spanish homework. It’s almost overwhelming at times — but I love it.

I feel like I’m catching on fairly quickly (and Aly seems to think so too), but I’m also frustrated because I wish I lived in a world populated by s-l-o-w-talking Spanish speakers. I could learn Spanish more easily if everyone around me would just speak it!

This is actually one of Benny’s top tips. In addition to hiring a tutor, he recommends immersing yourself in the language you want to learn. He wants to learn Turkish right now, so he’s in Turkey. If I want to learn Spanish, he thinks I need to go somewhere that Spanish is the primary language. I need to be forced to learn it.

Meanwhile, Stephanie (the Travel Chica), Courtney Baker, and Shannon O’Donnell have all suggested I try to find a language school in Antigua, Guatemala or Quito, Ecuador. From my initial research, it looks like I could sign up for a week at a time (for about $25/day) and get one-on-one personalized training. Benny says a language school isn’t necessary, that I’ll simply absorb the language through daily experience. He says I should head to Medillin, Colombia. “Colombia has the easiest Spanish in the world to understand,” Benny told me.

Benny may be right, but I know how my mind works. One-on-one lessons are going to be a better bet. Besides, if I decide I don’t like the language school, I can always shift my focus to learning from daily interactions.

In any event, I’m excited to have a focus for my first solo trip. Next week, I hope to pick my August destination. (Ecuador holds some charm because it’s a jumping-off point for the Galapagos Islands.) In the meantime, I’ll continue working with Aly three days a week.

I feel like the days ahead hum and glow with promise.

J.D. Roth…Time Master

“Ha ha. This doesn’t make any sense,” I told Kris the other night. I was reading in bed with my red head-lamp on. She was trying to fall asleep.

“Mmflphh?” Kris said.

“This comic book,” I said. “It’s Rip Hunter…Time Master. Rip and his friends are going back in time, but they’ve got it all wrong.”

“Mmflphh?” Kris said.

“See, they start from one point on Earth and then boom they’re back in time at the same point. But that’s not how it would work. All time-travel stories make this mistake.”

Rip Hunter...Time Master

“You know time travel’s not real, right?” Kris asked.

“But pretend that it was,” I said. “If you were going to travel to Earth’s past, you wouldn’t just have to travel through time. You’d have to travel through space, too.”

Kris laughed and covered her face with the blanket.

“What?” I asked.

“Time travel’s not real!” she said. “It’s not like it’s an actual phenomenon and someone just forgot to work out the details. Besides, space and time are two sides of the same coin. You can’t move in time without moving in space. They’re connected. When you move back in time, you move to where something was in the past.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said. “Time and space are different. If I move back in time just an hour, for instance, but I don’t change my location, I’ll appear in the middle of space, right? Because the Earth is moving and the sun is moving and the galaxy is moving. If I want to appear in the same spot on Earth, I have to move in space, too.”

“J.D.,” she said. “It’s the space-time continuum. It’s physics. Space and time are the same thing!”

I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

xkcd on the space-time continuum
The great xkcd on the space-time contiuum.

Time passed.

“I know!” I said, as I finished my issue of Rip Hunter…Time Master.

“Mmflphh?” Kris said. She was almost back to sleep.

“It’s like passing a football,” I said. “When the quarterback passes the football downfield, he’s actually throwing it into the future, right? I mean, he’s passing it to where the wide receiver is going to be in a few seconds, not where he is now.”

Kris sighed and muttered something I couldn’t hear. I set Rip Hunter aside and picked up an issue of Amazing Adventures.

“I told my co-workers about you and your fascination with time travel,” Kris told me the next day.

“What did your little friends have to say?” I asked.

“Well, they laughed at your inability to grasp basic science, but they were more amused by the fact that you read comic books in bed,” Kris said.

“Doesn’t everyone?” I asked.

Jane Austen’s Fight Club

I love it when two great (but unrelated) things get mashed together. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jane Austen’s Fight Club.

It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn close. (For those of you who need some context: Fight Club is one of my favorite movies, and not because of the fighting — it’s about much much more than that. I think you can figure the Jane Austen stuff out for yourself.)

Spider-Man in Invasion of the Dragon Men

There are some things I treasure from my youth that kids today will just never get to experience. Film strips in school, for one. Buying your favorite song on a 45rpm vinyl record, for another. And, most of all, those book-and-record sets you could get from the local department store.

When Dave gave me his hi-fi record player recently, one of the first things I listened to was my book-and-record set of The Hobbit. I love it still after all these years.

While browsing at the Marvel Masterworks forum (where I’ve been mostly a lurker for over five years, though I visit it every night), I discovered a lost treasure. Apparently some enterprising folks have taken it upon themselves to actually record some of these old book-and-record sets and upload them to YouTube.

For example, here’s Spider-Man and the Invasion of the Dragon Men, a set I actually owned as a boy:

While listening/watching, I was grinning from ear to ear. I remember this distinctly, and have thought of it many times over the years. I never thought I’d have a chance to hear it again, though.

There are other book-and-record sets on YouTube, including:

If you’re a fan of these recordings, too, then hold onto your seat because I’m going to let you in on the mother lode: Check out The Power Records Pages, which has audio files and image files on separate pages. Wow!

On the Verge of Inbox Zero

Alright folks. I’ve nearly done it. After years of being buried in e-mail, I’m down to just 39 messages left to process before my inbox is empty. Not bad, eh? Over the past two weeks, I’ve managed to archive hundreds of old messages, delete hundreds of others, and actually reply to a couple of hundred very patient people. And now I’m nearly to that mythical state called Inbox Zero.

More and more, I’ve come to understand that e-mail really is a “variable reinforcement machine”. It’s like a little pleasure pill that sucks productivity from your life.

I’m not about to go email-free like I’ve heard some other crazy folks do. I’ll admit it’s tempting, but I feel like that’s just me being difficult, being unwilling to address my own problems and so creating problems for those who want to contact me. Instead, I’ve set up a series of filters in gmail (which I now cannot live without despite my initial hatred for it) that will help me process the incoming flood of messages. Plus, I plan to be merciless about archiving stuff. Nothing gets to sit in the inbox except the stuff that actually needs a researched reply.

While looking up my link for Inbox Zero, I found Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero website. Mann is the guy behing the productivity blog 43 Folders. He’s a producitivy expert in a similar way to how I’m a personal finance expert. And he’s writing a book. He made this video about the process, which I find hilarious:

Hahahah! Having just finished my own book-writing process, I find this very very funny. My office, too, looked like something from Silence of the Lambs. At one point — well, “line” is probably a better metaphor — I just gave up and started hucking things over my left shoulder. No joke. I had a mound of trash (much of it food-related) that built for months in my office. I’m not proud of the this, but facts are facts.

Anyhow: Inbox Zero and my book is done. Will wonders never cease?

Why I Love the Apple iPad

Apple unveiled its latest product today: the iPad, a 24cm x 19cm (9.5″ x 7.5″) tablet computer. It’s a sort of hybrid between the company’s wildly popular iPhone and a traditional laptop computer. Reaction from around the internet is almost universally negative; most people think the iPad sucks. I’m not one of them.

The iPad is the computing device I’ve been waiting years to see, and I’m confident that it’ll be my primary method for consuming information when it’s released to the public in a couple of months. In fact, I’m willing to bet that the iPad will effectively eliminate my need to own a laptop.

To explain why I think the iPad looks so awesome, let me explain how I use the other computing devices in my life.

My computers
As you all know, I’m on the computer a lot. I produce a lot of content, both online and off. (My best guess is that I produce half a million words per year, which just boggles my mind.) To produce this content, I need an actual computer, one with a keyboard and USB inputs and a reasonably sized screen.

I do most of my work on a 24″ iMac with wireless keyboard and mouse. This setup is big and bulky — and thus immobile — but it meets my needs. I also have a 15″ MacBook Pro for home use, but to be honest, it feels like too much for content consumption (watching videos, browsing the web) and too little for content production (working with photos, writing a book). (I had a 17″ MacBook Pro for a while, but I sold it; it had the same problems as the 15″ model, but in a bulkier package.)

I’m not saying the MacBook Pro is a bad computer. It’s a great laptop — but it’s still a laptop. I can work with Photoshop and Word and other productivity apps, but to do so, I have to use the trackpad, and I don’t have as big a screen as I’d like. I do work on the laptop from time to time (I’m doing so now!), but if I really want to get work done, I walk up to the office and use the iMac.

The MacBook Pro is also our primary media-consumption device in this household. It’s where Kris and I watch our TV shows (purchased from iTunes or streamed from Hulu), and it’s the source of all of our music (streamed through an Airport Express). If I’m going to browse the web, I’m going to do it on the MacBook Pro. But here’s the thing: This device is overkill for these applications. It’s a $2,000 TV/stereo/web browser.

My portable devices
As a geek, I also own a wide array of special-purpose computing devices. I own an iPod, an iPhone, a Kindle, a digital camera, and even a portable audio recorder. The iPad won’t replace all of these, and I wouldn’t expect it too. (Though it will certainly replace the Kindle!)

I’ve been using an iPod since 2001. It took me a while to integrate a portable music player into my lifestyle, but now I couldn’t live without it. I use the iPod for a couple of hours every day. Or I did, anyhow, before the iPhone came along.

After some initial skepticism, I’ve become a fan of the iPhone; I like having the world in my pocket. It’s nice to be able to access e-mail and Google Maps and a web browser from anywhere. I also like the apps, especially the games.

But the iPhone is very limited. Yes, you can watch video on it — and I do all the time — but it’s not an ideal experience. (Except that I think it’s perfect for using while using the elliptical trainer at the gym.) And, of course, the iPhone is also an iPod, so it’s a great portable music player. But web browsing and e-mail? You can do them, but they’re limited. They’re there as a convenience, and aren’t meant to be industrial strength.

I also own a Kindle, the e-book reader from Amazon. I have very mixed feelings about this device. The form factor is gorgeous (I’d actually hoped the iPad would be this size and weight), but the screen is tiny because the keyboard takes up so much space. Navigation is tedious. And you can’t use the device for anything other than reading books. Plus it’s expensive. I do use my Kindle, and think it’s great for traveling, but I have regrets for buying it.

But here’s the thing: There’s a Kindle app available for the iPhone. It’s sort of senseless on the iPhone since the screen’s so small (though I hear Andrew Cronk uses it and loves it), but it’s there. Since iPhone apps will work on the iPad, I’ll be able to use the Kindle app to read all the books I’ve already purchased. Suddenly my Kindle is obsolete.

Why I’m excited about the iPad
If you were to read today’s online reaction to the iPad, you’d think the device was pointless. “Why not just buy a netbook?” some people ask. (A netbook is a tiny laptop running Windows.) “It’s just an oversized iPhone,” others say.

First of all, the iPad isn’t an oversized iPhone. It’s not a phone at all. Yes, it runs iPhone apps, but it sports a much larger screen, more storage capacity, and a faster processor. Plus, it does stuff. And why not buy a netbook? Because if I want a laptop, I want a laptop, not a dinky toy. And for my personal computing, I avoid Windows. (Windows is fine for other people, but I avoid it; I find it a miserable experience.) I’ve used a netbook, and found the experience maddening.

Here are some of things about the iPad that appeal to me:

  • Portability. The iPad is thin and light, but sports a large display. The screen is about the same size as the screen on a netbook, but the device itself is thinner and lighter. It’s more portable. I’ve seen how convenient it is to carry a Kindle, especially when traveling; the iPad will offer similar convenience.
  • Information consumption. While you can certainly produce information on the iPad — Apple’s making its office suite iWork available for cheap — that’s not what it’s designed to do. It’s designed to consume information. It’s designed to let you watch movies and TV in bed without a hot laptop sitting on your lap (and plugged into the wall). It’s designed to let you browse the web while riding the bus. It’s designed to let you read your e-books on the sofa. This is an media-consumption device without all the overhead of a media-production device.
  • Connectivity. The iPad sports built-in wireless, so you can use it on your regular wireless networks. The Kindle doesn’t offer this. The Kindle does give you free 3G connectivity, but that’s because all you’re really doing with the device is downloading text documents. You have to pay for your 3G use on the iPad, but it costs much less than similar iPhone service.

To be honest, I plan to buy an iPad as soon as its released. I’ve been waiting for something like this a l-o-n-g time. It’ll probably replace my laptop and, to some extent, my iPhone. In fact, I’ll probably carry the iPad with me everywhere I go.

I’ll use the iPad to browse the web, to read books, to watch movies, to listen to music, to look up maps to restaurants, to share my photos, and more. Yes, my other devices can do these things already, but they can’t do them in the same way.

It may be that the iPad’s market is truly tiny. Maybe the haters out there are right. Maybe it really is just a glorified iPhone. But from what I’ve seen, this is the device I’ve wanted for years.